2021 was a year defined by R&B’s dominance. Summer Walker’s Still Over It broke Apple Music’s record for the biggest 24-hour debut of an album by a female artist; H.E.R. became the first R&B artist this century to win an Oscar for Best Original Song; Silk Sonic turned vintage funk into a modern-day obsession; and SZA scored her biggest hit on Spotify, Apple Music, and the Billboard Hot 100 all off the strength of a re-released SoundCloud track.
To celebrate a banner year for Black music’s most soulful genre, VIBE compiled 21 of the best R&B songs from 2021. Whether they’re about making love, losing love, or professing love, all of these songs were chosen with the wonders of that four-letter word in mind.
"On It" - Jazmine Sullivan feat. Ari Lennox
Few R&B artists have cracked the combination unlocking how to be sensual without being overtly raunchy, while still centering empowerment and liberation in their descriptions of sex. Jazmine Sullivan and Ari Lennox do just that on the Heaux Tales standout, “On It.” Whether it’s Lennox proclaiming, “These curves got you driving reckless,” or Sullivan inviting her partner to “crash into these waves,” the dynamic duo have as much fun with their wordplay as the song’s described lovers have with their sexuality. Sullivan and Lennox strike the perfect balance between yearning and patience; they’re willing but not settling, freaky but not easy. It takes elite penmanship to write a song about sex elegant enough for a ballroom yet filthy enough for the bedroom.
"Come Through" - H.E.R. feat. Chris Brown
Sure, H.E.R.’s Back of my Mind album garnered four nominations at the upcoming 64th annual Grammy Awards and “Damage” is widely considered her opus’s crown jewel, but more respect needs to be put on the R&B gold she and Chris Brown unearthed on “Come Through.” Centered around the best two-word phrase one could hope to see from their crush, the song features H.E.R.’s mezzo-soprano voice evocatively flipping what’s typically an invitation for a late-night tryst into a vulnerable sign of intimacy and access. For nearly four minutes, she paints the picture of a selectively social woman letting a yearning male partner into her private space. The end result is one of the best duets of the year.
"Wasting Time" - Brent Faiyaz feat. Drake
It’s not hard to accept the offer of wasting time, especially when asked by the right person. On the first collab between Brent Faiyaz and Drake, the duo speaks to the mutual understanding of dealing with women who are already preoccupied while also wanting them all to themselves. Assisted by The Neptunes on production (while paying homage to Pharrell’s debut album, In My Mind, with its single cover art), “Wasting Time” fits right into the toxic R&B trend fans have on repeat while loosely alluding to the beggin’ R&B we know and love. Drake chimes in with the tension on full boil—”Fluent in passive aggression, that’s why you actin’ dismissive/ Hearin’ me out for once would require you actually listen”— and speaks to vexations and skepticism towards past lovers.
"Something In The Water" - Tone Stith feat. Maeta
R&B crooner Tone Stith and Maeta take Kenneth “KP” Paige’s piano-laden production on “Something In The Water” for a spin to spill their hearts out about exes they can’t get out of their heads. Tone bemoans about his ex being out of his life but maintaining real estate in his dreams, and Maeta waxes poetic about the futility of the old adage of getting under someone new to get over someone old. Tone and Maeta’s seductive voices compliment each other wonderfully. An interpolation of Michael Flowers’ signature piano work on Carl Thomas’ classic “I Wish” is the perfect addition to this song about a love lost.
Toronto native Hunnah gives an ethereal voice to the sort of analysis paralysis that keeps many folks from finding love on the titular track of her Unloved EP. The singer wrestles with silencing her own desires via childish pride, struggles with articulating ineffable feelings of romance she’s not used to indulging, and ultimately ponders if her indecisiveness will doom her to a fate of forever being unloved. On the song, she strikes an engrossing balance between self-reflection and self-deprecation. Her questions about her future feel existential and her displeasure with her blocking her own blessings is uniquely palpable, making the record one of the very best of the year.
"So Deep" - Brianna Knight
The deepest love connections occur when two partners are so in tune that they can read each other’s minds, and Brianna Knight’s “So Deep” demonstrates that well. Released in March, Knight’s boom-bap soul fusion is a wholesome jaunt through the love-induced grandeur a young woman sees in her partner. For Knight, her love interest is not just someone who has her heart, they’re an addiction; her light and stars; a telepathic genie that can manifest her desires before she utters them aloud. In a modern society where love is often measured by the materialistic items one can bring to the table, it’s refreshing to hear Knight describe being sprung off the emotional warmth and security her partner provides.
"Gangster of Love" - Aiyana-Lee
Love can, at times, be a battlefield, and R&B crooner Aiyana-Lee is equipped with a devastating combination of a “heart of gold and some brass knuckles” on the scorching ballad “Gangster of Love.” The 20-year-old R&B talent subverts tropes of love songs in which one finds themself victimized by naiveté and blind to red flags. Her self-love is self-defense against heartbreak as she walks potential suitors through the many contingency plans she has in the event they hurt her, all with hypnotic yet assertive vocals. Gangster rappers regularly describe catching bodies on songs for survival. Aiyana-Lee channels a similarly aggressive sense of self-preservation as a certified gangster of love.
"Good & Plenty (Remix)" - Masego, Lucky Daye, And Alex Isley
As a descendent of the legendary Isley Brothers, Alex Isley’s airy and enchanting vocals have the makings of the classic soul singing many allege has died or is incredibly scarce. Paired with Masego’s unique tone, as well as the soothing sound of the Jack Dine-produced track, “Good & Plenty” is pure perfection. And just when fans thought the song couldn’t get any more perfect, a remix drops a few months later. Delectable crooner Lucky Daye gets added to the equation and plays off Alex’s melodic seduction.
The ethereal remix paints a poetically sensual visual, elevating the original ode to the physical and emotional pleasures gained from a partner while still playing on its romantic elements. The song is intimate, familiar, and fulfills our palates while leaving room for us to crave more.
"Nxwhere" - Jenevieve
Florida-bred singer Jenevieve fit themes of perseverance, self-discovery, and embracing the beauty of the unknown in a little over three minutes of groovy poeticism on “Nxwhere.” The first verse alone is only eight lines, as the crooner paints images of a destination-less journey with “the sky raining hell” on her before recollecting things she “lost in the fire.” The standout verse on this standout song concludes by noting her trials and tribulations haven’t broken her, they’ve only strengthened her resolve.
"Memories" - DVSN feat. Ty Dolla $ign
Ty Dolla $ign and dvsn’s first collaborative album, Cheers to the Best Memories, was a match made in R&B harmony heaven, as evidenced on the project’s intro. The song reworks SIlk’s “Freak Me,” updating the 90s classic while keeping the same sense of playfulness. As Ty admires one woman’s limitless “throat game,” dvsn’s Daniel Daley builds with another after knocking her walls down. Add in Nineteen85 and Noah “40” Shebib’s throwback production along with Daley hitting high notes in the middle of raunchy propositions, and you have a good ol’ fashioned anthem for your next sexcapade.
"Lately" - KIRBY feat. BJ The Chicago Kid
The Tennessee-born, Mississippi-raised songstress KIRBY modernizes classic soul sounds made famous by both regions on the tender love ballad, “Lately.” Along with BJ The Chicago Kid’s warm vocals, KIRBY yearns for her lover in a falsetto that would make D’Angelo and Maxwell proud. “Lately” is at its core a simple love song about two people looking to stave off loneliness by being with the one they care for the most. It’s pure soul music uncomplicated by R&B’s current trend of feigned emotional indifference.
"Promises" - Cleo Sol
A whimsical track laced with hints of the ‘70s and ‘80s soul, “Promises” serves as a reminder to self. It stems from Cleo Sol’s phenomenal second studio album, Mother, where she navigates new motherhood, which she describes as “the most transformative, uplifting, heart–melting, strength–giving experience thus far.” In an ode to her younger self, Sol reflects on a lost love she didn’t anticipate, fitting into the thematic nature of sacrifices, faith, various forms of love, and emotional confrontation. It’s a sweet track with a simple melody that guides the way to escapism. Allow yourself to wander away.
"Tangerine Dream" - Snoh Aalegra
Not many singers have a voice whimsical yet impactful enough to make an improbable airport love connection sound as attainable Snoh Aalegra does on “Tangerine Dream.” Her empyrean voice and Joel Compass’s airy production pair perfectly in creating this weightless fairytale that’s still somehow grounded in the realness of a love felt deep in the soul. There may not be a Grammy Award for Best Song To Play While Watching A Sunset, but if there were, “Tangerine Dream” would be a runaway favorite. When an artist can soundtrack in song a human experience that most couldn’t articulate in conversation, they have a timeless record on their hands—and that’s what “Tangerine Dream” accomplishes.
"Come Over Again" - VanJess
Relationships aren’t defined by titles, but by connections. And VanJess’s smoky single, “Come Over Again,” is an ode to sneaky links who remain one call away; close, but just far enough to not be able to hurt you. Ivana Nwokike and Jessica Nwokike set the perfect atmosphere for coordinating a bedroom rendezvous, as they barely sing higher than the intimacy of a whisper meant only for the partners on top or underneath them. The Nigerian-American sisters took the funky original “Come Over” from 2020, remixed it in 2021 as “Come Over Again,” and bestowed upon us a shameless casual sex anthem.
"Remedies" - Shelley FKA DRAM
If you’ve ever left a relationship while still living inside its memories, Shelley’s “Remedies” won’t fix that, but it’ll be the perfect soundtrack for your tears. The artist formerly known as DRAM harmonizes the story of his regret with such specificity the images he paints feel as familiar as one’s own flashbacks. A solo date at your ex’s favorite restaurant on what would’ve been your six-month anniversary sounds heartbreaking, but Shelley’s velvety vocals and the song’s soulfully bare production provide a balm to soothe any memories that still scar you.
"Unloyal" - Summer Walker feat. Ari Lennox
Summer Walker and Ari Lennox’s time is too valuable to be wasted on shade from underachieving ex-lovers trying to stop their shine. The duo make that much clear on Walker’s jazzy “Unloyal,” a standout from her sophomore album Still Over It. Two of R&B’s most honest lyricists, both famous for airing out men on wax, hold nothing back when telling their sides of the breakup stories their exes conveniently leave out when calling them unloyal.
If you’re going to call Summer Walker unloyal, she’ll make sure you remember the games you played with her heart. If you’re going to call Ari Lennox untrue, she’ll make sure to drag you for being a groupie for the misogynistic “dating advisor” Kevin Sammuels. In the end, “Unloyal” isn’t a revenge song from two scorned women looking to disparage people they once cared for. It’s an uplifting song for women who know they’re too fine to be wasting time with men who would rather call you out your name than call a spade a spade.
"I Hate U" - SZA
No other song in 2021 made bitterness sound quite as cleansing as SZA’s Soundcloud–loosie– turned–Billboard–hit, “I Hate U.” The Golden Globe-nominated songstress and her trademark brand of diary-dumped lyrics are the perfect vessels to channel the conflicting emotions we’ve all felt when the person we love brings out the worst in us. There are moments in the song in which SZA hates and lusts over men within a five-second span. But perhaps most striking is the way her decidedly angelic voice is able to emote enough anger for the phrase “I hate you” to hit like a bullet to the heart shot straight from a kiss.
"F.U.C.K." - Victoria Monet
The “f**k buddy” is a role as old as time, and Victoria Monet steps into that role on “F.U.C.K.” with the confidence of a woman who wants you but doesn’t need you. Lines like “I’m just trying to jump your bones, we don’t gotta jump the broom” are reminders that puritanical stereotypes of women being unable to separate sex from marriage need to be silenced, and songs like “F.U.C.K.” needs to be turned up to the max. Monet is comfortable not being someone’s soulmate because she knows she’s unforgettable enough to claim to be “the prototype” of someone’s future wife. With a voice as soft as a nighttime lullaby and wit sharp enough to coin the acronym “Friend U Can Keep,” Monet delivers an entertaining guide on how to navigate a relationship that’s platonically sexual.
"Grow" - Samm Henshaw
Toni Morrison said in her acclaimed novel, Jazz, “I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.” If there was a song befitting of a potential film adaptation, it’s Samm Henshaw’s “Grow.” This jazzy, string-ridden ballad feels like falling in love at the cusp of spring on the first perfectly warm day after a brutally cold winter.
Behind the swooning lyrics and timeless instrumentation, the song also touches on the growing pains of love. By the time the tune hits the bridge, the British crooner lays his soul bare as he sings in a register that flows through you like a smooth dark liquor—no chaser required. Sandwiched between Henshaw’s other two singles, the revelatory “Still Broke” and laidback “Chicken Wings,” “Grow” slows the pace while also setting the tone for what’s to come from his debut album, Untidy Soul.
"Good Days" - SZA
Known for emotionally tapping into your spirit and singing the things you rarely dare to say out loud, SZA’s Grammy-nominated track arrived on Christmas 2020 and has been spreading subdued cheer ever since. “Good Days” poured out of the singer amid the pandemic’s lockdown and serves as a personal mantra. The lo-fi instrumental also eases the mind, allowing fans to get lost within it. During the song’s height, SZA shared, “I genuinely lost my mind in quarantine last year. I have nothing else but to believe in good days because if not, what? I’m just going to let it spiral out of control? And that’s not an option.” And if that’s not a good enough reason to push through, what is?
"Leave The Door Open" - Silk Sonic
The mark of an effective pastiche is when the song inspires listeners to search for the exact record it’s molded after, only to find there isn’t one. That’s the case with Silk Sonic’s “Leave The Door Open,” a decadent homage to the days of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder when courtship was pure and not simply a formality for sex. For four minutes, Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars turn the purity of a crush into a sonic wonderland. Mars uses the fullness of his Grammy Award-winning range on the chart-topping single to practically beg a woman to reciprocate his love. Meanwhile, .Paak offers all he has to give (including but not limited to weed and fish filets) because unapologetic simping is what being in love is all about.